A meal without rice

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Fredskorpset. Bringing people together.

The phone call was unexpected, and the caller was unsure. Way back in 1999, I had no previous contact with Norway. More importantly, the person calling had already had a hiccup. His research had led him to someone who didn’t speak English, hadn’t travelled much, and wasn’t familiar with any of the issues that he was meant to have authored. It was a case of mistaken identity, but Per Kristian Lunden wanted to be sure it was the REAL Shahidul Alam this time round. We photojournalists share a common language, and soon, the doubt disappeared. While we were strangers, there was enough common ground to know we walked similar paths and in this case, had a common goal. We were going to build on a database for media practitioners of the south, that I had started.

More phone calls followed and eventually I found myself opposite a tall Norwegian (all Norwegians are tall by Bangladeshi standards) at Kristiansand, and Per Kristian Lunden and I drove off to the city of Risør. The idea of a city with 3000 people was novel to me. But it was summer and they had a wooden boat festival. I was fascinated by the long nights.

Per and I went over to London to meet Nel Hodge at the BBC and Bethel Njoku from Gemini News Service. They had set up the International Reporters Network. Our database had several false starts. Those were the days when it was either Mac or PC. Having gone the Mac route, the problem of translating it into PC was another chore. But none of that mattered. I gave them our database which they put online and soon we were finding and adding on new southern journalists on a regular basis. These were small steps we were taking to ensure Majority World journalists would have a voice.

Per Kristian has gone on to become mayor of Risør. Earlier he was involved in a very interesting organisation called Fredskorpset (which we quickly shortened to FK). FK had several elements. We were involved in the section where young mid-career professionals were exchanged amongst partner organisations. It was through the initiation of FK and by nurturing it that our friendship grew. In the first planning meeting, we gathered colleagues from Dhaka and potential partners in Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe to Risør. This time it was winter and we arrived at a very different Risor. We joked about our librarian at Drik, Faruque having his woolen hat on ALL the time. We never saw him without it in the entire trip! Drik’s designer Reza had also joined us. It was the first distant trip for both Reza and Faruque. We learnt new things. The fact that one could have a complete meal without having rice was one. That the prime minister could be doing the dishes at the parent teachers’ meeting at school was another.

Soon Per, his Norwegian team and I went on an African expedition. To Harare, Dar es Salaam and Kampala to meet our African partners. Trevor Davis, the director of Samso in Harare was an old friend who had come to Pathshala at its inception. He had set up a media company along the lines of Drik. A scouser (from Liverpool, UK) from as far left as one could imagine. He didn’t take naturally to business, but had more than enough passion for the rest of us. Like a bull charging at every fence we followed him on roller coaster rides through Harare streets and Harare bureaucracy. He was a passionate teacher and knew no other method but giving it all. At quieter moments, when we had a barbeque around a newly designed eco-friendly stove, we joked about the number of goats he had to pay as bride money for his enchanting wife Kudzai. We met potential clients, hatched business plans, plotted revolutions. Not much materialised, but we were on a high and with Trevor’s enthusiasm for pretty much everything, thinking negative was never an option. I had a portable strobe set that I was bringing over to Dhaka. Trevor immediately took a liking, explaining the wonderful things he could do with the device all across Africa. I wasn’t quite convinced, but the strobe set is still with him. It is difficult to say no to Trevor.

Sammy Makilla in Dar Es Salaam was the exact opposite. Though he lacked a flowing beard, one would imagine him lecturing on philosophy, under a baobab tree or at an amphitheatre. He was the quiet professor who pondered on every word. He too was a dreamer, but he floated on clouds, and everything wafted at a cerebral level. I wondered how the media houses that he headed operated under a person who was a fine thinker, but totally removed from the realities of everyday life. Predictably perhaps, the Business Times Group that Sammy headed, closed down soon afterwards. Sammy undaunted went on to other projects, as ambitious, as worthy and as impractical.

The third musketeer in the African trio was Edward Baliddawa. A rebel priest, who had left the church to run an IT company. Eddy was a man of the world. He knew every politician, was aware of how things worked and very much a businessman. I am sure the heavens miss him. He would have devised the perfect business-plan for afterlife. Eddy spoke fast, moved even faster and knew how to make things happen.

It was July 2001. Drik’s graphic designer Rezaur Rahman went over as the first FK participant. A handsome young man, he soon became known as the Omar Sharif from Bangladesh. Another equally handsome man from Harare in Tanzania, Mwanzo Millinga, joined Reza in Risør. Reza’s earlier trip to Risør had been his first trip to a far away country. Mwanzo was the first African he’d seriously interacted with. Norway was certainly the coldest place either had ever been to. They went to Oslo summer school together and bonded as strangers in an unknown place often do. While both are back in their respective countries, their friendship remains special.

A Bangladeshi and a Tanzanian, walking down the streets of Risør is not a usual sight. They made mistakes, pined for their families together, enjoyed each other’s company and respected each other as professionals. They also made a highly competent duo, and were the finest ambassadors we could have hoped for.

Despite their friendship, Reza remembers that the first three months were difficult. They felt Norwegians had a shield which they needed to penetrate. Risør strangers avoided eye contact and didn’t chat to them in the corner shop. Reza also remembers it slowly getting easier. But the trip transformed the young man and did wonders for his self-esteem. The exhibition he curated for Norad’s 50th anniversary, went on to win 2nd prize at the “Sabla Bra Reclamme” (damn good promotion) contest. The phone call saying “Reza you have won”, is one he still remembers fondly. The leading advertising agency in Norway had come 3rd. In the exhibition itself, a rickshaw had been brought over from Dhaka, Reza was in charge of guiding it through the exhibition, with the crown prince in the passenger seat and the prime minister as the rickshaw wallah!

FK participant Rezaur Rahman, (in green top). On his right the Norwegian prime minister, the crown prince and the minister of development, at exhibition designed by Reza for the 50th anniversary of NORAD.
FK participant Rezaur Rahman, (in green top). On his right the Norwegian prime minister, the crown prince and the minister of development, at exhibition designed by Reza for the 50th anniversary of NORAD.

He had achieved recognition nationally through his design work at Drik, but winning an international award, especially against such strong completion boosted his confidence. The fact that he had been featured in the local newspaper could not have hurt.

In Dhaka he had worked in a team where he would delegate things to others and be in charge of the overall product. The book he did for the wooden boat festival , using pictures taken by Mwanzo and images he chose from stock, was much acclaimed. It meant a lot in terms of his professional development. In Risør he was a one man team, where he came up with the core design, worked as a picture editor, prepared his own files, assembled everything needed for the presentation and met the client. It honed his technical skills, but also developed the people skills that have helped him along his career. There was greater freedom, and greater responsibility and he loved it. Living on his own and fending for himself were new experiences, as was as the close friendship he had developed with Mwanzo through working together and living in the same flat. Many years later, while touring the international show “Tales From A Globalising World”, it was his old friend Mwanzo he chose as his partner in Tanzania.

Rune Nylund Larsen and his girlfriend Heidi were a courting couple. Love in Bangladesh must have been a different experience. Whatever else might be plentiful in this beautiful country, privacy was not one of them. Rune was a photographer, Heidi a designer. Rune taught pinhole camera techniques at Pathshala. Heidi replaced Reza in the design department. This motley crew pulled together well, but there were cultural gaps to be dealt with too. While Heidi was a fine designer, Bangladeshi clients wanted a more ‘active’ design than the minimalistic style that the western palette catered for. Rune was a big burly, but incredibly soft-spoken Norwegian. Had there not been his substantial weight behind his gentle manners, he might have found it tough in the rough and tumble of the energetic environment of Pathshala, our school of photography. But Rune knew his way around and the students produced results. He also arranged an introduction to Morten Krogvold, Norway’s most celebrated photographer and now Morten is a regular visitor to Pathshala and the school’s favourite tutor.

There were other couples too. Abir Abdullah and his wife Shilpi and their two-year old son, Anarudhdha. It was their first visit to Europe too, and they settled in well in their new home, but it was not without incident. It was a large house where they were initially on their own. The other courting couple Sameera Huque (my niece) and her fiancée Wahidur Khandkar (Czhoton), they were going to share the house with, had not yet arrived. Strange dreams and unusual happenings led to investigations. The building had apparently been bombed during the war and local folklore suggested that it was inhabited by ghosts! The Bangladeshis all felt the Norwegians were very reserved, but there was no guarantee the Norwegian ghosts would be equally so.

Nilavro and Shilpi in Oslo.
Nilavro and Shilpi in Oslo.

Coming from a country where it was perfectly normal for complete strangers to ask you personal questions. Where one never made appointments to visit people in their homes. Where you frequently borrowed sugar and rice and maybe a chair or even a mattress from a neighbor because you had unexpected guests, the idea that people would not speak to you unless they knew you, was a strange experience. The fact that you could travel a long journey by bus sitting next to someone and never have a conversation, felt uninviting and distant. Reza had felt the same initially, but realized he had to take the initiative and had overcome it to an extent. Having become a minor celebrity after winning the award he was also recognized and soon afterwards had many friends. The young couple with their younger kid, didn’t find this small town as hospitable. Two tall buildings in New York had fallen in between, and the world had changed. Abir, Shilpi and Anarudhdha were to go on to Tanzania to work with Mwanzo. They had visas, the tickets were fine, but all three were sent back from Tanzania. New anti terrorism laws had been put in place, and Muslims from an Islamic country were considered suspect.

Things were even more difficult for Sameera and Czhoton. Back in Pathshala they had hobnobbed with the finest photographers in the world who were regularly part of the visiting faculty. Their aims were high, and expectations many. Sørvis, our partner company in Risør where they worked, had purchased an expensive software for picture distribution, which never took off. The couple had scoffed at their poor choice. That a small company had to do many things to survive, and that the best picture was not always the right picture, were practical things this young aspiring couple found difficult to reconcile with. Per would have discreet conversations with me, about how they compared everything with Drik and that nothing there was good enough. Eventually Sørvis went bust, and since the funds had been kept at that end, while payments had been made in Bangladesh, meant we never eventually got reimbursed. Per tried valiantly to settle all dues, but the reality was that the money had run out. It is a credit to him, that we were able to put that behind us and start anew, with new partners and in new programmes.

Some of the transformations were unpredicatable. Torbjørn Laukvik was a tall lanky Norwegian who was great with computers but had difficulty with people. Things were difficult with him from the beginning, until he discovered photography. It started with him helping out as an assistant in the studio. Then he went on outings, discussed pictures and became part of the photo community. His computer skills helped. He also knew how to add special effects in Photoshop and the best compression techniques. Slowly he came out of his shell, complained less, accommodated more and became less surly. He started making friends. Later, while Bangladesh was in the midst of an attempted military coup, Torbjørn worked late into the night scanning slides, compressing them and using our narrow bandwidth to send pictures to clients like Time Magazine. He had been so difficult, that we come close to terminating his contract. The Torbjørn that left Bangladesh, was a tearful young man who had made friends in the most unexpected places in the most unexpected manner. I am not sure how much we had gained from his computer skills, but to watch a person being transformed in front of one’s eyes was a life assuring experience.

Then there were the Africans. Neo Ntsoma from South Africa and Wilson Jowha from Zimbabwe were two very different people. Wilson was lanky, easy going and dived into everything. He had a go at setting up a business, and was completely undeterred when things went wrong. He loved it so much in Dhaka that he appealed for his tenure to be increased by a year, and we had to find creative ways of keeping him without bending the rules. He became one of the gang, a teacher a student, a buddy all rolled into one. As a parting gift, he gave us a business plan, which he hoped we’d adopt for a new enterprise he wanted to set up with us in Bangladesh. Wilson had no intensions of leaving.

Neo was a spirited young woman, who had left behind a child. Understandably, she missed her kid. An unmarried mother was not an easy thing to be in Bangladeshi culture, and her child was far away. Neo could not have found it easy. At a Chobi Mela (our festival of photography) discussion Neo talked movingly and with hurt, about the humiliation she had faced in apartheid South Africa as a black woman trying to work in a predominately white and male profession. Perhaps in defence, she was pushy and loud and liked to have her way. She certainly made her opinion felt when a man put his hand on her bum at a boisterous Baul festival in Kushtia. Neo was a fighter and always ready to put on her gloves. She found Dhaka a dirty city. Disliked people spitting in the streets and generally thought Bangladesh did not match up to her native South Africa. Neo too, was someone we thought would end her contract prematurely. Her realisation came later. Once she had gone back and had time to reflect upon her experience, she wrote me one of the most moving letters I had received from a participant:

“Thanks for always trying to put a smile on my face. You’re truly an amazing person. I sometimes ask myself how can one man be a pillar of strength to all of us, because we’re just too many on your list. I feel so honoured to be among your favourites. I read your email and thank you for your honesty. YOU MEAN THE WORLD TO ME. I know that I have my insecurities but you’re the one person that makes me believe that there’s no mountain high enough not to be reached. I really appreciate you, I honestly do. I often feel I am at the right stage in my life to take full control of my life for as long as I still have people like you in my life, but again, I also have my fears and insecurities blocking my way.

I know I can do much much better as an independent photographer but I also have a child to support. Wilson knows about my situation because I get to see him often. Just like you, he always makes time for me no matter what. Watch this space Shahidul, soon you’re gonna be more proud of me than ever before. Just give me 6 months to clear my mind a bit. You’re gonna see a more focused and different Neo Ntsoma. I am gonna make you proud.”

Neo went on to become CNN’s African Woman Photographer Of The Year, and her work was featured in the recent Majority World show at the Guardian Gallery in London. More importantly, she is self confident, without being arrogant. Self believing without being judgmental. Firm without being aggressive. I see a more focused and very different Neo Ntsoma, and I am proud.

Despite the financial setback due to the bankruptcy of Sørvis, we had gained a lot from the FK experience and wanted to try again. Per remained supportive and soon a delegation from Drik India, The College of Mass Communication and Journalism in Kathmandu and Anwar Hossain and I from Drik in Bangladesh, went over to meet potential partners in Africa. Eddy Baliddawa was our host. The discussions were long and hard. Needing a break, our hosts arranged for us to go to see the source of the Nile. We were all excited about this trip, but when the boat took us to a point in the middle of a river where there was little sign of anything unusual, it was only Manju Mishra from Kathmandu who had the temerity to say “And THIS is what you brought us to see?” Maybe that was an indicator of how things were to go. We weren’t able to come to an agreement about partnerships, but upon return to our countries decided to set up a South Asian partnership, involving Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. This took its own turn, with its share of failures and successes and misunderstandings and heartbreaks. Afghanistan eventually dropped out of the partnership. Fardin, who was to join us in Dhaka, decided he would forego the option of coming to Dhaka, to appease an irate future father in law who had no intention of the bridegroom to be, traipsing off to Bangladesh.

Our network has grown and many of the global projects we do today rely on the partnerships we have built. Many of us continue to collaborate. Many of the young men and women who went on this exciting journey have had life changing experiences, though some have floundered too. As often happens with people, the distance from home has also led to disruptive habits and broken relationships. We had worried that the newfound opportunities might be the very factors that led to the participants to seek greener pastures. A crude mechanism to hold back part of the salary until they had served three years after return, failed to work. And we have lost people. Some have gone on to do well, which was what it was all about. On the other hand, those who have stayed have become the foundations of our organisation. Foysal is the head of the gallery. Nipun runs the publication department. Reza is now the general manager. Through them, the FK legacy lives on.

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